Haredi 'Star is Born' to break 'Idol' mold

This contest won't be on TV because the audience does not have any.

Matisyahu 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Matisyahu 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This singing contest won't be broadcast on television because the audience, for religious reasons, does not have any. Nor will women participate in the contest, since men are forbidden to hear a woman's voice. The more embarrassing moments of forgotten lines, off-key singing and bungled dance steps will be kindly censored to avoid the stricture against hurting a fellow Jew's feelings. But despite myriad religious restrictions, a leading figure in the religious pop music scene has launched a strictly ultra-Orthodox version of American Idol. To be known as A Haredi Star is Born, the contest is modeled after the secular Israeli version of American Idol, Kochav Nolad (A Star is Born). Journalist, talent scout and haredi pop music promoter Menahem Toker has already held auditions for hundreds of hopefuls and has narrowed the contestants down to a handful. Starting this month, Toker, who has been offering the haredi community a kosher version of a TV variety show for the past nine months, will present the first two contestants. Toker's programs, which include discussions of current events, interviews and performances, are distributed monthly on CDs to about 10,000 families. Most haredi families do not have TVs and often are not hooked up to Internet, or at least do not publicly admit they are. But most have PCs. So the CD is the perfect form of media used to tap into Israel's haredi community of between 500,000 and 700,000. "The response so far has been tremendous," said Toker. "We've gotten a lot of positive reactions." Voting for the next haredi idol will pose a problem since many haredi families who receive Toker's CDs cannot send an e-mail. Also, "kosher" cellular phones do not have SMS options. But Toker has made available an answering machine that will field telephone calls and a fax number. Pop music is one of the few forms of entertainment that is considered legitimate in haredi circles, where men are expected to devote all of their time to Torah scholarship. "Music, especially singing, has always been a part of Jewish culture," said Toker. "Hassidic rebbes and their followers always sang, singing is part of the prayer services and, according to Jewish tradition, King David sang and played music, as did the tribe of Levi in the Holy Temple." Nevertheless, haredi rabbis and activists have tried to restrict appearances by popular haredi pop singers such as Mordechai Ben-David, Avraham Fried and Ya'acov Shwekey to weddings, holidays and other religiously oriented festivities. For instance, in March, popular hassidic singer Lipa Schmeltzer was forced to back out of a concert at Madison Square Garden following rabbinic pressure. In Israel, the last big haredi pop concert that was not tied to a religious event was the appearance of Shwekey in Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem over a year ago. The pressure on young men to refrain from leisure activities such as singing or going to music contests is compounded by the fact that these army-age men are exempted by the state from mandatory army service on condition that they devote themselves to yeshiva studies. Women are also discouraged from taking part in these concerts since the mingling of single men and women is highly prohibited and restricted solely to the goal of finding a spouse. Ken Burgess, a British songwriter and arranger who converted to Judaism 13 years ago, is one of the judges who helped pick the finalists. "There is a lot of talent out there waiting to be discovered," said Burgess, who owns a recording studio in Ramat Gan where many of the famous haredi pop stars record. "Hopefully, this contest will give the industry a major push."